This article was published in the May to August 2018 issue of Rapport magazine.
Bev Shepherd examines the biblical definition of true wisdom and how to steer a course which leads to life
Decisions, decisions, decisions – what to wear, what to do, what to say, what to eat … the list goes on. In our workplaces, homes and communities we are faced with a plethora of decisions on a daily basis. Seemingly small choices can have immense consequences. How are we to steer a course that aligns with our values and leads to life?
The writer of the book of Proverbs urges us to ‘Get wisdom’. We are told that wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing we desire can compare with her (Proverbs 8:11). Also, that getting wisdom is better than gold, and insight preferable to silver (Proverbs 16:16). Wisdom is described as a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed (Proverbs 3:18).
We often think of wisdom as ‘having answers’, yet the value of the answer depends entirely on the validity of the question. Questions and statements highlight our presuppositions. So, what is ‘wisdom’? John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion by stating: ‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves’.
‘Wisdom,’ says Larry Lea in Wisdom – Don’t Live Life Without It, ‘is the God-given ability to perceive the true nature of a matter and to implement the will of God in that matter’.
Bill Hybels, in his book Making Life Work, writes, ‘Wisdom is what is true and right combined with good judgement. Other words that fit under the umbrella of the biblical concept of wisdom are discerning, judicious, prudent and sensible. Not very glamorous words, perhaps, but words you can build a life on.’
In our Google/Facebook/tweet- filled world we can struggle with an avalanche of data and information. Quantity of knowledge does not equate to wisdom. The Book of Proverbs builds a picture of wisdom as a compass for life, helping us to discern the path we should take and guiding us in how to walk that path.
Wisdom – the starting point
‘Wisdom’ is offered us from many sources: motivational speakers, self-help books, internet forums, coaches, mentors, etc. Hence, we need a filter to distinguish true wisdom from its deceptive alternative – foolishness.
It is through our relationship with the Lord that we distinguish wisdom’s gold from fool’s gold, as they can look very similar. Wisdom originates with God and so true wisdom is to be found in relationship with Him. ‘To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his’ (Job 12:13).
Job later concludes that God alone knows where wisdom dwells and that ‘the fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’
(Job 28: 23,28).
In the phrase ‘Fear of the Lord’ the covenantal name ‘Yahweh’ is used implying a committed relationship of reverence and awe. If we allow the culture of our workplaces and society, and the time pressures we experience, to squeeze the fear of God out of our ‘wisdom’, it becomes practical atheism where our responses to situations are not distinguishable from those of our non-believing neighbours.
How do we gain wisdom?
Wisdom is occasionally seen when someone has a moment of insight which unlocks a seemingly intractable situation. However, most wisdom is based on habitual patterns developed over time. This can be regular focussed attention on God’s Word as in the instruction given to Joshua: ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful’ (Joshua 1:8). It also includes Paul’s more general call to think about things that are noble, true, right, pure, etc, (Philippians 4:8).
Developments in neuroscience now provide an underpinning to such statements. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how the brain is modified by our patterns of thinking. By making wise choices as to where we focus our attention, what articles we read, TV we watch or colleagues we listen to, our brains are reshaped. This influences our capacity to feel, think and act wisely. Paul’s instruction to focus on ‘whatever is good’ is wise advice.
‘If any of you lacks wisdom, they should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to them’ (James 1:5). James assures us that wisdom is ours for the asking, yet even to ask makes certain prerequisites evident. Why do we find it so difficult to ask for wisdom? Firstly, it takes humility to admit that we need wisdom. Secondly, it takes a faithful relationship with God to trust and receive God’s supply (James 1:6-8), and so we may be unsure that we will ‘hear’ His answer when He gives it. And thirdly, it may require us to wait. We are used to instant information – we press a button and the answer we want appears on our screen. God refuses to be conformed to our timescales.
It is tempting to want a self-help wisdom manual where we look in the index for the appropriate subject area, be it ‘project delays’, ‘lack of resource’, ‘difficult family issues’, etc. and then turn to the related wisdom instruction. Biblical wisdom literature does not operate in this way. The relational foundation for wisdom is vital as even seemingly biblical wisdom can come from ungodly sources – the devil quotes Scripture to Jesus in the desert (Luke 4:1-13).
How do we avoid folly?
The book of Proverbs offers a stark choice – to walk the path of wisdom or that of foolishness – there is no middle way. It is noticeable that both Wisdom and Folly call out in public places: ‘Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares’ (Proverbs 1:20); ‘She (Folly) sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by’ (Proverbs 9:14). It is in the hustle and bustle of our ‘public places’ – the office, factory, school, hospital, or marketplace – where we are in great need of true wisdom and also the good judgement to distinguish between these two voices. Both make attractive offers, yet one leads to life and the other to death.
How then do we avoid walking foolishly and responding to Folly’s call? Humility! ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’ (Proverbs 11:2). Only those who are humble, i.e. those who are not wise in their own eyes, but fear the Lord and shun evil (Proverbs 3:7), are open to both receive and discern true wisdom.
- Learn from those who are truly wise: ‘Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it’
- Avoid the counsel of the wicked, and the company of mockers (Psalm 1:1).
- Accept rebuke and correction (Proverbs 5:12).
- Recognise when they have been trapped by what they have said and seek to put it right (Proverbs 6:1-5).
- Not assume that they have enough strength to avoid dishonesty, drunkenness and adultery and so will put things in place to ensure that they ‘keep a path far from her’ and ‘do not go near the door of her house’ (Proverbs 5:8).
Human wisdom and God’s wisdom often look very different. In part this might be because we tend to focus on the ‘obvious’, whereas God often works against our expectations as to what counts as ‘wise’. Walking along the Emmaus road, Cleopas and his companion were no exception (Luke 24:13-35). The ‘obvious’ facts of the situation were that Jesus had been sentenced to death by the chief priest and rulers, crucified and buried. No wonder they were downcast – their hopes were dashed and the rumours of resurrection made little sense to them. Yet Jesus calls them foolish – foolish not to believe all the prophets had spoken, foolish to have lost their hope and foolish not to have eyes to see beyond the obvious facts.
How are we to avoid similar foolishness and gain wisdom? Wisdom originates with God and so true wisdom is to be found in relationship with Him and through the Scriptures. As Cleopas and his companion discovered, it was in communion with Jesus that their eyes were opened (Luke 24:31) – opened to recognise Jesus, opened to the wisdom of the cross, opened to the truth of God’s Word, and opened to a new hope for the future. As we speak with Him in prayer we can ask for the wisdom and discernment we need. ‘Not to pray is not to discern – not to discern the things that really matter, and the powers that really rule’ (The Soul of Prayer, by P.T. Forsyth).
With opened eyes and burning hearts these Emmaus disciples returned to Jerusalem to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. In God’s wisdom He has sent us, His followers, to go into all the world – our schools, factories, offices, hospitals and homes and make disciples. To do so we will need eyes opened to His wisdom and hearts burning with His love. ‘We preach Christ crucified … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).